Insight 1: Defining and Assessing Bullying and Peer Victimization are Complex Tasks
Defining Bullying: Perhaps, the most challenging aspect of bullying prevention programming is reaching a consensus on a definition of bullying. A number of definitions exist in the literature; however, although these conceptualizations differ semantically, many of them have one similarity: Bullying is a subset of aggression (Dodge, 1991; Olweus, 1993; Rivers & Smith, 1994; Smith & Thompson, 1991). The following definitions are commonly found in the literature: A person is being bullied when he or she is exposed, repeatedly over time, to negative actions on the part of one or more other students. (Olweus, 1993, p. 9) A student is being bullied or picked on when another student says nasty and unpleasant things to him or her. It is also bullying when a student is hit, kicked, threatened, locked inside a room, sent nasty notes, and when no ever talks to him. (Smith & Sharp, 1994, p. 1) Bullying is longstanding violence, physical or mental, conducted by an individual or group and directed against an individual who is not able to defend himself in the actual situation. (Roland, 1989, p. 143)
Thus, bullying is defined in the literature as a repeated behavior (including both verbal and physical behaviors) that occurs over time in a relationship characterized by an imbalance of strength and power (Olweus, 1994). Given this imbalance of strength and power, it is difficult for the person being bullied to defend himself or herself. Researchers who study bullying can "borrow" from the aggression literature as they struggle to define and assess bullying behaviors. One well-accepted typology of aggression includes Dodge's (1991) categorization of proactive versus reactive aggression. Proactive or instrumental aggression includes behavior that is directed at a victim to obtain a desired outcome, such as gaining property, power, or affiliation. In contrast, reactive aggression is directed at the victim as a result of an aversive event that elicited anger or frustration on the part of the perpetrator. The majority of bullying has been viewed as proactive aggression because bullies often seek out their targets with little provocation and do so for extended periods of time. Others have distinguished bullying from other forms of aggression using the typology of direct versus indirect aggression (Bjorkqvist, Lagerspetz, & Kaukiainen, 1992; Olweus, 1993) or overt versus covert aggression (Crick, 1995; Crick, Casas, & Ku, 1999). Direct (overt) aggression includes physical fighting (e.g., pushing, shoving, kicking) and verbal threatening behavior (e.g., name-calling, teasing) that is face-to-face confrontation; whereas indirect aggression (covert) includes a third-party in which verbal aggression is accomplished through rumor spreading and name-calling. Relational aggression has emerged in the literature as another form of aggression or bullying. Coined by Nicki Crick and colleagues, relational aggression is defined as aggression directed at damaging a relationship. Put another way, in relational aggression, relationships are used as a means to harm (Crick & Grotpeter, 1996). For example, relationally aggressive youth might threaten to exclude a friend from a social activity if he or she does not go along with the aggressor. Students might also spread rumors about a close peer as a way of retaliating when their target did not go along with the crowd. To date, relational aggression is defined and assessed as verbal aggression; however, it is also plausible that some students damage friendships through physical force or threat of physical force.
In summary, despite their disparate nature, most definitions of bullying include the notion that bullying includes both physical and verbal aggression, which is a systematic, ongoing set of behavior instigated by an individual or a group of individuals who are attempting to gain power, prestige, or goods. Tactics might also be directed at the threat of withdrawal of a friendship.
Need for innovative assessment methods. In recent years, human subjects review boards and federal funding agencies in the United States have placed great restrictions on the collection of behavioral observations as active parental consent is becoming mandatory in many school districts. As previously noted, Canadian researchers have videotaped bullying on the playground, and based on these studies have obtained empirical support for the social-ecological perspective (discussed more completely later) of bullying. A method that has yet to be used in the area of bullying is the Experience Sampling Method (ESM; Csikszentmihalyi & Larson, 1987). ESM is a method of recording daily events during brief periods of time and is a method for assessing attitudes and behaviors "in real time." This methodology typically involves "beeping" a participant at random or predetermined times throughout the day with a programmed wristwatch or a pager, which elicits a signal to prompt the participant to complete the Experience Sampling Form (ESF). Upon receipt of the signal, the participant completes the ESF, which is designed specifically to address the objectives of a particular research study. Typically, the ESF includes questions about the respondent's location, social context, activity, thought content, and affect. For bullying research, questions related to bullying and peer victimization could be included. Because videotaping and other observational measures present both ethical and methodological challenges to the assessment of bullying within American schools, many researchers rely on self-, teacher-, and peer-reports, which fail to assess repetition, a characteristic that distinguishes bullying from other forms of aggression (Lane, 1989; Olweus, 1993; Smith & Thompson, 1991; Solberg & Olweus, 2003). Although survey instruments have several advantages over observational measures (e.g., inexpensive, more efficient data collection, less obtrusive), integrating survey research with assessments that more closely examine these behaviors as they unfold in a time-sensitive manner will enhance our understanding of bullying. Given that these methods may be impractical for school psychologists, this call for innovative assessments is directed primarily at researchers.
Insight 2: Bully-Victim Behaviors Fall Along a Continuum: Debunking the Dyadic Bias
Current methods of assessing and categorizing students into static groups such as "bullies" and "victims" have also been called into question. This assessment approach assumes that bullies and victims fit into a categorical, dichotomous, bully or victim dyadic pattern. Much of the recent research on bullying has challenged this assumption (Bosworth, Espelage, & Simon, 1999; Olweus, 1994; Schwartz, Dodge, Pettit, & Bates, 1997; Slee, 1995; Solberg & Olweus, 2003; Swearer, Song, Cary, Eagle, & Mickelson, 2001). This research supports a conceptualization of bullying behaviors as dynamic rather than static and argues that students' involvement falls on a continuum. Students can be involved as a bully, a victim, a bully-victim, and/or a bystander. The examination of bullying along a continuum represents a significant departure from the standard practice of identifying students who repeatedly victimize their peers and are known as the "bullies" or those students who are the "victims." This continuum perspective recognizes that students tease their peers in more subtle ways and on a less regular basis; however, these less frequent behaviors still have serious effects on their targets, and thus, are worthy of exploration. Furthermore, recent research (Salmivalli et al., 1996; Swearer et al., 2001) suggests that students have different bullying and victimization profiles. That is, students are no longer classified as only victims or bullies, but can be classified as bullies, aggressive bullies, victims, bully-victims, bystanders, and normal controls. Given recent studies showing bullying is a group phenomenon (see Long & Pellegrini, 2003; Rodkin & Hodges, 2003), it is necessary to abandon the dyadic bias toward bullying and attend to the various roles that students play (e.g., bystander, reinforcer; Salmivalli et al., 1996) and recognize the diversity of experiences along the bully/victim continuum.
Insight 3: Relational Aggression Does Not Account for Sex Differences in Aggression
For decades, males have been considered the more aggressive sex. In hundreds of studies, research on aggression has found that, as a group, boys exhibit significantly higher levels of aggression than girls (for review see Coie & Dodge, 1998). Recently, however, researchers have questioned whether males are in fact more aggressive than females. Historically, many studies on aggression have excluded girls from the sample (Crick & Rose, 2001) and have defined aggression as overtly physical or verbal, but have failed to consider more subtle, covert forms. Some have posited that if aggression was defined as different types of aggressive acts, the relationship between sex and aggression would become less clear (Crick & Grotpeter, 1995).
As such, several different terms are used to describe covert types of aggression, including indirect aggression and relational aggression. Indirect aggression is defined as "social manipulation, attacking the target in circuitous ways" (Oesterman et al., 1998, p. 1). Relational aggression includes "behaviors that are intended to significantly damage another child's friendships or feelings of inclusion by the peer group" (Crick & Grotpeter, 1995, p. 711). These include behaviors such as spreading rumors, excluding peers from one's social group, and withdrawing friendship or acceptance. During the last 8 years, a plethora of studies have investigated relational aggression across the early school years into adolescence. Relational aggression has been shown to be more prevalent among girls than boys because boys typically engage in more overtly physical and verbal forms of aggression (e.g., Crick, 1996; Crick, Casas, & Mosher, 1997; Crick & Grotpeter, 1995; Rys & Bear, 1997). Different measurement techniques have been used, including peer-reports, teacher-reports, self-reports, and naturalistic observations. Crick and Grotpeter (1995) conducted one of the first studies examining relational aggression and in many ways opened the door for future research on this type of aggression. The study included 491 third through sixth graders, from four public schools in a midwestern town. A 19-item peer nomination instrument was used to assess relational aggression, overt aggression (defined as physical and verbal), prosocial behavior, and isolation. Peer nomination scores were used to classify students into four groups: relationally aggressive, overtly aggressive, both overtly and relationally aggressive, and nonaggressive. No sex difference was indicated in the number of students who were classified in the nonaggressive group: 73.0% of the boys evaluated and 78.3% of the girls fell in this group. However, statistically significant sex differences were found for the overtly aggressive group: 15.6% of the boys and .4% of the girls were in this group. Furthermore, the relationally aggressive group consisted of 2.0% of the boys and 17.4% of the girls. The remaining children (9.4% of the boys, 3.8% of the girls) were placed in the relationally and overtly aggressive group.
A second study (Rys & Bear, 1997) attempted to replicate the findings of Crick and Grotpeter (1995). Rys and Bear assessed relational aggression among other forms of aggression in 131 third graders and 135 sixth graders, from nine elementary schools and five middle schools in the mid-Atlantic public school system. Given their goal of replicating the Crick and Grotpeter study, they used the same peer nomination measure to assess children's aggressive and prosocial behaviors. Although boys were more overtly aggressive than girls and girls were more prosocial than boys, no sex differences in relational aggression were found. Similarly, findings in a study of 268 middle school students also indicated no significant sex differences on relational aggression when implementing the Crick and Grotpeter (1995) relational aggression scale (Espelage et al., 2003). These contradictory findings indicate that future research needs to explore the construct of relational aggression as well as the associations to relational victimization.
- Espelage, D. L., & Swearer, S. M. (2003). Research On School Bullying and Victimization: What Have We Learned And Where Do We Go From Here? School Psychology Review, 32(3), 365-383. Retrieved from https://digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1153&context=edpsychpapers